Community leaders address opportunity and fiscal challenges for Story County


Katherine Kealey

Provost of Iowa State University Jonathan Wickert, Mayor of the city of Ames John Haila, Vice President of the Mary Greeley Medical Center Amber Deardorff, Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson, Ames Community School District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Hawkins and Chair of the Story County Board of Supervisors Latifah Faisal at the State of the Community Address on Friday afternoon (left to right).

Katherine Kealey, Editor-in-Chief

As the Iowa legislature considers cutting municipal revenue, community leaders from Ames and Story County shared how they plan to balance out the loss while maintaining services.

During the State of the Community hosted by the League of Women Voters, United Way and KHOI radio station, Mayor John Haila said one of the challenges Ames faces, along with other cities, is the Iowa Legislature. Haila was one of six panelists a part of the forum Friday, including representatives from Mary Greeley, Des Moines Area College, Ames Community School District, Iowa State University and the Story County Board of Supervisors. 

“They are really ramped up and have us (municipalities) in their crosshairs,” Haila said.

After the forum, Haila told the Daily he was specifically referring to the legislature’s impending changes in property tax legislation. Haila said because some legislative issues have occurred for the state, there is a potential the tax could be lowered by 2%. 

This would force cities to re-examine their budgets to accommodate for the loss of revenue. Haila said the change would be short notice for the city’s budget process, which is already based on the initial rollback rate set by the legislature. 

“They told us that back in October, and now they are looking at changing that,” Haila said. “That is a very challenging undertaking.”

The city is taking on development and construction projects such as the Linc, the new Schainker Plaza in downtown Ames and the indoor aquatic center

All entities said they were feeling the effects of rising costs. The Capital Improvement Plan is seeing some cost increases. Haila said since the city cannot go over budget when costs rise, then different projects are late or get canceled. Regardless, Haila said city staff and the Ames City Council are working to maintain all the services that are often taken for granted.

“We don’t always agree, but the point is my metric is not of whether or not we work together well,” Haila said. “It is, more or less, do we have the same common vision, and it is making Ames better, stronger and a phenomenal place to live.”

When asked how the school district would balance current and upcoming budgets, Ames Community School District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Hawkins thanked state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, sitting in the audience, for his support for public school funding. 

“The school district is funded based on the number of students who walk through the doors,” Hawkins said. “So rather than inflation, student enrollment and populations is what really drives and creates our funding structure.” 

Hawkins said Ames Community School District saw a lower number of students in the fall and has been steadily on the upward climb. The school faces higher costs for utilities as well. 

Teachers, staff and administrators are the greatest strengths within the Ames Community School District, Hawkins said.

“Every day, we get to influence, shape and grow the youth of our community,” Hawkins said. 

When examining student achievement, Hawkins said not every student experiences the education system the same way. The district also faces a staffing shortage for education support system staff.

“We continually will work forward to create a system and figure out how we can make changes with what we do as adults to get the same great results out of kids,” Hawkins said. 

Hawkins said the district is beginning its strategic planning process, intending to provide the district with direction on what the most important focuses are over the next five years. The remodeling of Ames High School is another accomplishment for the district, Hawkins said. 

Story County Board of Supervisor’s Chair Latifah Faisal said the county completed its budget process. Tackling broadband and ensuring that all residents have the same access to service is a priority of the county board of supervisors. 

“That is definitely a challenge that we are running headfirst toward, but there are no easy answers,” Faisal said. “So that’s a challenge and an opportunity really to make life better for everyone.

Transportation outside of Ames and water quality are two other challenges the county faces. Story County has a watershed coordinator to help connect landowners to the optimal conservation plan and funding. Faisal said the current board recognizes the importance of water quality and funds those positions.

With the potential tax changes from the legislature, the board is forced to pause certain projects in case of revenue cuts. 

One project on hold is the sheriff’s office wants to construct a new firing range facility. Faisal said this project is not canceled, but it will cost over $2 million. So the board asked the sheriff’s office to pair it down significantly.

“We are just waiting to see what is going to happen before we make any decisions about how we move forward with any of those projects,” Faisal said. “…Even with that pairing down, we are just going to have to see where our budgets are.”

For Des Moines Area Community College, 52% of the operating budget comes from tuition. The college still has the lowest tuition in the state, but Des Moines Area Community College’s President Rob Denson said students are still paying more than he would hope. 

“It is tight times,” Denson said. “We are anxiously watching the legislature. The property tax is only 8% of our budget, but 8% is still a pretty big number, and it is very important. So as we look at the future, I heard a rumor that the legislature was looking at adjusting this past year’s evaluations. It’s a little late in the game now.”

Denson said it would be problematic for counties to have to go back and reset budgets based on the changed property tax rates.

“We will have to do what we have to do,” Denson said. 

Enrollment in the post-pandemic environment is also a challenge for Iowa State University. Wickert said this has been a priority of President Wendy Wintersteen. Non-resident enrollment for the freshman class and international student enrollment has increased. Iowa State is developing a new marketing campaign for recruitment. 

The second challenge for Iowa State is higher-level, Wickert said, which is telling the story, truth and value about higher education. 

“For all of our lives, American higher education has been the envy of the world. That is why we attract so many international students and around the country,” Wickert said. “And being out there advocating for the importance of education.”

Denson said Des Moines Area Community College is meeting the overall needs of the workforce by offering over 220 programs for attending students. The biggest challenge they face is opportunity, Denson said.

State-implemented programs help Des Moines Area Community College with costs, such as the Last-Dollar Scholarship, which covers the remaining tuition that federal or state grants don’t cover. 

In Iowa, only 40% of Iowa high school graduates do not go on to college, Denson said.

“That seems insane in the state of Iowa,” Denson said. “…We just need to engage these individuals.” 

Mary Greeley Hospital is working with schools to bring more people into the workforce. One example of this is the expansion of the internship program. Before the pandemic, the hospital had 200 students interning. Now there are 700 students from across the state, including Iowa State University and Des Moines Area Community College, Mary Greeley’s Vice President Amber Deardorff told the Daily.

Prior to the pandemic, Deardorff said the country already faced a staffing shortage in healthcare resulting in 975,000 job openings. Now the number has increased to 2.1 million. While Mary Greeley has been in a better position than other places in the country, Deardorff said when cities like Des Moines fill up on hospital beds, Ames feels the trickle-down effect.

“All of those patients have to go somewhere,” Deardorff said. “So we need to work collaboratively as a healthcare community to right this ship.”

Deardorff said patients are struggling with mental health now more than ever. 

“A day doesn’t go by that our staff isn’t hit, slapped or kicked, and that is not OK,” Deardorff said. “So one of the opportunities we see is working will all of these organizations to make sure that we are able to recruit those qualified staff.”

In 2020, Mary Greeley had to spend over $1 million a month on travel staff, which was not planned for due to the pandemic. 

“We still needed to care for all people who walked into our doors,” Deardorff said. “So I am happy to say we have worked on recruitment, retention and, at this point, we have two travel nurses.”

While this cost has gone down since the decrease in traveling staff, Deardorff said their overall costs for staff and equipment are still up. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Denson said Iowa is becoming more diverse, so it is crucial for Des Moines Area Community College to also hire a staff that resembles the population they serve. The community college is looking at data and has re-examined its hiring process to create better representation. 

The Ames Community School Board recently adopted a definition of educational equity. Hawkins said there is still work to be done to close the gaps in behavior and attendance.

“The question is, are we getting the results we desire yet? I would have to answer no,” Hawkins said. “Our goal and what we strive for in this place is to get results from the work.”

Story County now formally recognizes Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth as a holiday. Faisal said the county is also sponsoring events related to diversity, equity and inclusion but that is a “cosmetic step” to the hard work left to do. 

“I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to ensure we’re having the conversations that we need to be having,” Faisal said. “That I am asking who’s not here, or whose voice are we not hearing right now.”

The county has formed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee consisting of department heads and elected officials as well as city staff. The county is also beginning to examine the hiring policies and practices.

“We need to move faster,” Faisal said. “I appreciate you continuing to hold everyone accountable.”

Wickert said there is always more work to be done on diversity, equity and inclusion, and every day the university learns more. In response, Iowa State implemented the Principles of Community.

“This is particularly a priority of President Wintersteen in our new strategic plan to be a university that cultivates open and respectful ideas,” Wickert said. “Celebrating diversity and respect for everyone on campus.”

The Ames Resident Police Advisory Community examines policy and training for the city. Haila said it is also important to lead by example. Mary Greeley also assembled a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee that consists of 64 staff members. 

All organizations agreed they share a strong partnership that is rarely seen in other communities. 

“This is unique,” Haila said. “…It really is amazing what we are doing and how we are partnering together and the conversations that we are having.”